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Federal Appeals Court Strikes Law Banning Handgun Sales To 18-20 Year Olds

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A federal appeals court in Richmond ruled Tuesday that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to bar licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to 18, 19 and 20 year olds, striking down a law that's more than 50 years old.

The ruling applies in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia – all states in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Judge Julius N. Richardson wrote in the opinion, “Our nation’s most cherished constitutional rights vest no later than 18. And the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is no different.”

Following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., coupled with a rising crime rate, Congress passed the new restrictions under the Gun Control Act of 1968.

“Despite the weighty interest in reducing crime and violence, we refuse to relegate either the Second Amendment or 18 to 20 year olds to a second-class status,” Tuesday’s opinion read.

The three-judge panel was split, however, with Judge James A. Wynn Jr. writing the dissenting opinion. Wynn made the case that the law was not a constitutional violation because it only restricts licensed sellers, not individuals under the age of 21, who could still legally obtain a handgun by other means.

“It’s been the longstanding notion that young people are a little bit more reckless and therefore handguns are uniquely dangerous in their hands,” said Andrew Goddard with the Virginia Center for Public Safety.

Goddard said individuals in that age group can obtain handguns as a gift from family members.

“If a family decides to buy a gun for their 20 year old or 19 year old, that would still stand, and always has stood,” Goddard said. “But then it’s on the family to know whether they’re giving a gun to someone who has shown violent tendencies, or is mentally unstable or is drug addicted, that kind of thing.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to have and bear arms, but not without reasonable regulation.

“A lot of the debate now is what’s a reasonable regulation?” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “That’s what the Supreme Court is still working through and the lower federal courts the same. But here, it’s just interesting that this law had been on the books for 50 years, and I don’t think any other courts have found the same way as this court did.”

The ruling is likely to be appealed to the full court of 15 judges. The next step would be the U.S. Supreme Court